Most of us are probably familiar with the iconic logo of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF); indeed, the giant panda has become the poster child for conservation the world over. The organisation was established in Switzerland in 1961, and inspired by this initiative, industrialist Anton Rupert founded the Southern African Wildlife Foundation in 1968. In 1995 it transformed itself into WWF South Africa.
As the logo suggests, at the start, both organisations focused primarily on the conservation of specific endangered species, mainly mammals, but over the years the WWF’s philosophy has undergone a sea change. Led by an awareness of the interdependence of all living things, its approach turned towards environmental protection, where an entire ecosystem was viewed as an integrated entity. Considering the role – usually destructive – played by humankind in the environment, it clearly made no sense to exclude people from the equation. This is currently being underlined by the effect of man-made climate change on the planet.
Many of us may not be aware that the WWF has maintained an active presence in the Kogelberg since 2012, focusing mainly on the welfare of the coastline between Kleinmond and Pringle Bay. An integral aspect of its projects is its working relationship with small-scale fishermen and women who have plied their trade here for centuries, albeit with diminishing reward.
In recognition of the hard times they are currently experiencing, especially during lockdown, on Mandela Day this year, the CEO of WWF-SA, Dr Morné du Plessis and his local team handed out food parcels and vouchers to 94 fishers with whom they are partnering in the Kogelberg. The low-profile event was also attended by Barbara Creecy, Minister of the Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF) and representatives of the fishing community who had the opportunity to engage in dialogue with the Minister about their situation.
Creecy acknowledged that they had been hard hit by the economic and social effects of Covid-19 long before many other communities, as the Asian markets closed their doors to African marine products. In the spirit of Nelson Mandela, she said, she was reaching out a hand of friendship and support to these small-scale fishing communities. “Ours is a common struggle for transformation of the fishing industry, sustainable use of marine resources and access to better livelihoods for coastal communities.”
WWF agrees. “One of the severe challenges faced by small-scale fishers is that many of the marine resources that they have depended on historically have either collapsed or are in decline. Unless these resources can be effectively managed,” they conclude, “this will continue on a downward spiral.” They are currently implementing a three-pronged approach to this challenge, in collaboration with the local fisher people and their families, with the aim of restoring and preserving a healthy marine ecosystem on the one hand and assisting the local fisher folk to develop sustainable livelihoods on the other.
There is a constant striving for balance between these two imperatives and Sindisa Sigam, WWF’s Small-scale Fisheries Co-ordinator and his colleague Kholofelo Ramokone are at the rock face. “In our interactions with the local fishing communities, apart from calling for assistance to cope with the dire economic circumstances they find themselves in, they have two requests: They would like to participate in management decisions about their future, instead of having policy imposed on them; and secondly, they would like to be actively involved in research projects in this area,” comments Sindisa. “I believe this indicates that they want to be part of the solution for themselves and the ocean.”
In terms of developing a strategy for the sustainability of the fishing communities, WWF has launched several interlocking initiatives. On the one hand, they are working with recognised small-scale fishers, encouraging them to utilise their line-fish permits, rather than only relying on the Asian markets for West Coast Rock Lobster sales. Fish species like Cape bream (Hottentot) and Carpenter are recommended, as they are not on the WWF-SASSI red list.
“It would also be to the fishers’ advantage,” stresses Sindisa, “for government to complete the formation of strong, community-based small-scale fishing co-operatives in the region, such as they have already established in the other coastal provinces. According to government, the co-operatives will be granted fishing rights for 15 years for a basket of different species.”
As WWF comments: “An enormous task lies ahead for the Department as it works to ensure that the small-scale fishing co-operatives are supported so that they can become economically sustainable and meet the food security needs of their community, alongside protecting sensitive marine resources.”
The Kogelberg fisher communities are already making a valuable contribution towards the protection of marine life, with exciting potential to expand. In 2017 twelve of the local fishermen were recruited to participate in a two-year pilot project using baited remote underwater video systems (BRUVs), which provide a non-destructive, non-invasive technique for capturing valuable information. This coastline is a hotspot for marine biodiversity, including, amongst others, 60 species of sharks and rays which, because they share their habitat with many other sea creatures, can be looked upon as ideal ‘umbrella’ species.
The fishers work in collaboration with the Kogelberg Marine Working Group, an overarching co-ordinating body consisting of most local stakeholders such as WWF-SA, representatives of CapeNature, the provincial DEFF, Overstrand and Overberg Municipalities and others. With their wealth of local knowledge, the fishers are ideal partners and the hard work they put into the project is greatly appreciated by the scientists.
WWF-SA describes the operation as follows: “Attached to the BRUVs camera on a metre-long metal rig, oily fish bait attracts both scavengers and predators to be filmed on the ocean floor, allowing scientists to measure their abundance and diversity.” However, as they also point out, “Capturing these videos takes a lot of work. Camera rigs must be set up with bait, boats need to navigate to the exact spot in the ocean, heavy metal rigs and ropes must be deployed and then delicately retrieved and hours of video footage must be analysed with careful eyes.”
Indeed, two local youngsters were recruited and trained specifically to undertake the data analysis. This pilot project was so successful, as demonstrated in two scientific papers subsequently published, that funding has been obtained by WWF-SA to continue the work until 2023.
The other scientific project in which the local communities are heavily invested is the Youth Monitoring project, of which Sindisa is particularly proud, because while its main aim is to collect scientific data, at the same time, it empowers and upskills young people. “Their role is to move up and down the Kogelberg coast on a rotational basis and collect as great a diversity of data as possible. This could include what seabirds have been observed and where, nest sightings, weather conditions on a particular day, sea turbulence, human intrusion, shoreline detritus – anything that may impact the environment.
“The monitors are currently being assisted to upgrade their Grade 12 results, so that they can qualify for the Criminal Law Enforcement and Environmental Conservation programme offered by the Nelson Mandela University. Obtaining this qualification will equip them for employment with any conservation body in South Africa.”
At a recent function at the Stony Point penguin colony, some of these youngsters proudly showed off their sparkling white T-shirts sporting the slogan The Panda Made Me Do It. Be that as it may, the spirit remains the same and they are making an invaluable contribution to the preservation of a unique marine environment, all the while acting as remarkable role models in their own communities.